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Cargo Shipping Companies’ Price Signaling Could Run Aground In EU Probe

Posted  November 27, 2013

By Jeffrey I. Shinder

The steady stream of cartel investigations and lawsuits on both sides of the Atlantic in recent months highlights the need for vigilant antitrust enforcement to protect consumer welfare, despite the views of those, like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who question the wisdom of antitrust law.

These alleged cartels range from the apparently venal manipulations of the financial services industry, where pure greed and opaque markets have resulted in the Libor, Euribor, and foreign exchange market investigations, to claimed conspiracies of expedience in stagnant or depressed industries, where the protagonists are alleged to have colluded to manage supply and “maintain” price in the face of weak demand.  Given the slow growth that has plagued the industrialized world in recent years, we almost certainly will be hearing about more such cartels.  Rigorous antitrust enforcement is often the only check against consumers suffering massive overcharges in numerous, even critical, industries.

At the end of last week, European Union (“EU”) regulators disclosed yet another significant investigation with their announcement of an inquiry into whether 14 of the world’s major container shipping companies—including the two leading firms of Danish shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S and Swiss-based MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A.—have been coordinating price hikes on European routes dating back to 2009.

This new investigation follows raids on some of these companies two years ago by the European Commission (the “Commission”).  According to the Commission, major shipping companies have been using press releases on their websites to signal impending price increases to each other.  While such signaling, standing alone, would be insufficient to support an antitrust violation in the United States, it could be found to violate EU law if it has resulted in higher prices and harm to competition.  However, the targets of the investigation undoubtedly will argue that their price increases were necessitated by competition in the industry and that their conduct reflected individual, and lawful, conduct that did not harm competition.

Notably, this investigation is taking place against the backdrop of separate U.S. and EU regulatory scrutiny of the planned “P3” vessel-sharing alliance among Maersk, MSC and France’s CMA CGM S.A.  The alliance would purportedly address persistent overcapacity and declining freight rates through an agreement to share ships and engage in related cooperative operating activities, under a common management, while retaining individual commercial status and control of consignments.

Last month, the three shipping companies filed their proposed agreement with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission (“FMC”) under the U.S. Shipping Act of 1984.  The FMC is taking public comments on the agreements until November 29, 2013.  If the FMC declines to enjoin the alliance or require additional information, the agreement will become effective on December 8, 2013.  While that would confer antitrust immunity under U.S. law on the alliance, in this instance such immunity is not available under EU competition law.

Although EU law does exempt certain agreements among shipping companies from Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the proposed alliance does not meet the requirements of that exemption.  Thus, even if the alliance survives FMC scrutiny, which is not a given, it may receive a rougher ride in the EU.

Moreover, while the Commission claims that its price-signaling investigation is separate from its ongoing review of the P3 alliance, the cartel investigation could conceivably influence the Commission’s willingness to approve the alliance.  It would not be surprising if the price-signaling investigation causes the Commission to impose additional restrictions on the alliance, even if it is approved.

Given the significance of the shipping industry to the global economy, the progress of these regulatory efforts in Brussels is well worth watching.

Edited by Gary J. Malone

Tagged in: Antitrust Litigation, International Competition Issues, Price Fixing,